Show and Tell: Why Writers Need to Do Both

Note from Brooke: This post is by Inked Voices member writer Melissa Gardner. Sometimes we are lucky enough to host her for small group workshops, and she does professional critiques for writers, too.

Every writer knows the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” We’ve heard this admonishment in writing classes, we’ve heard this advice in workshops, and we’ve read this adage in countless books on craft. In fact, we’ve heard “show, don’t tell” so often that many writers have come to the wrongful conclusion that showing is “good” and telling is “bad”—yet, this simply isn’t true. As writers, we need to both show and tell.

When we write a scene and/or use direct dialogue, we are showing. Showing is used to capture what is happening in a specific moment of time, seeking to create an immersive experience for the reader. We want the reader to feel and see what the character feels and sees in a vicarious way.

When we write to provide information, we are telling. Telling can be used to establish a setting and mood, introduce character, move quickly in time, and/or set up a scene. We want to guide the reader through the story in a way that provides the reader with the information they need while keeping the reader engaged and interested. In a sense, we are preparing the reader for what’s coming up next.

For example, consider the first chapter of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Before we see Bilbo and Gandalf’s first scene together, Tolkien takes the time to tell us about Hobbit holes and provides a condensed summary of Bilbo’s family history. Because Tolkien does this, we are prepared for what’s to come: we understand the setting, we know a bit about Bilbo, and therefore the scene where the two meet makes sense to us.

However, telling doesn’t just have to occur at the beginning of a book or story. For example, in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, she often condenses months of time, summarizing what’s going on at Hogwarts, in between important scenes in the novels. These passages move us quickly through time, yet keep us interested and engaged in the life of Harry.

The most important reason to both show and tell is pacing. We can’t ‘show’ everything in a story; doing so grinds the narrative pace to a halt. As Jerome Stern states in his book Making Shapely Fiction, “Showing…takes a lot of space.” If we do nothing but show, the reader becomes bogged down in the excessive details and sensations.

A better rendering of the phrase “Show, don’t tell” might be: Don’t show when you should tell and don’t tell when you should show. Use “showing” for scenes that are key to the overall narrative. These should be the places where you want to slow the pacing down to highlight the scene’s importance. Save “telling” for places where you need to move things along in the narrative, but still need to provide information to the reader to set up the next important scene in the story. By using both, you’ll keep the reader engaged and successfully guide them from beginning to end.

About Melissa Gardner

Melissa Gardner has been writing since she learned her ABCs. Her love of stories and storytelling was fostered by her grandmother who read to her daily. Melissa received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Seattle Pacific University and is now working on two short story collections. She has taught at a variety of universities since 2005, and currently teaches literature and fiction writing classes online for Southern New Hampshire University. Originally from Pennsylvania, she now lives on the Gulf Coast with her husband, three cats, and Monty, her ball python.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Frank Flaherty’s “Getting Your Story Moving” lectures. Melissa Gardner has also given several talks for Inked Voices, on dialogue , point of view, and narrative structure. All of these talks are included in Inked Voices membership.